How can a son say goodbye to a father he never connected with?
This is what I wondered as I watched my father lie on the rough white hospital sheets, his body wasted, his face a locked door.
It was January 2013. We were at Spaulding Rehab Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My father’s kidney cancer had metastasized and he didn’t want treatment. He didn’t want company, either — mine or anybody else’s. Still, my sister and I would visit, separately as our schedules allowed. I’d walk into the room, stomach clenched. The TV blared, the ventilator beside my father’s bed sighed loudly, the mantra of his past weeks and a portent of his future.
I’d say, “Hi.” He’d nod, his head too big for his diminished body. When I’d ask him how he was feeling he’d shrug. Rough translation: how the hell do you think I’m feeling? I’m dying. Then we’d sit with the awkward silence. Eventually he’d put his headphones back on and watch TV. I’d watch the clock for exactly 30 minutes — as long as I could stand. Then I’d touch the paper skin of his forearm and tell him I was leaving. Because there was nothing I could do for him. And no indication that my presence made him more comfortable. In fact, his anxious eyes and the tension in the muscles of his atrophied arms suggested the opposite.
This scene was a familiar token of our past — mine and his. For as long as I can remember, my father had locked his emotions away in a small cell. Like any of us, he had his reasons. He was plagued by the pain of having been abandoned at age 6 by a drunk father and raised instead by an uncle, who nearly abandoned him too, to an orphanage. This was during the depression: work was scarce and mouths were hard to feed. From then on, my father bore the constant shame of feeling like a burden.
Expressing himself was too risky. Opening up emotionally was overwhelming, and utterly foreign. Like so many in his generation, he’d been conditioned by society’s message that men should be tough, thick-skinned — anything but sensitive. Sensitive was tantamount to burdensome, weak.
So my father kept a silent distance from my mother and me – the emotional ones in the family, the ones from whom he could feel expectation, need, hunger. He’d get up in the morning, go to work and come home after the rest of us had dinner. If I hung around and tried to talk to him while he was eating, he’d just stare down at his plate. Ignore me till I gave up and went away. After dinner, he’d move to his recliner in the den and watch TV. He’d turn the volume high, smoke cigarettes, and drink beer until he fell asleep. Woe to anyone who disturbed him.
As his only son I was tormented by the walls my father hid behind, and haunted by the easy camaraderie between him and my sister. However I might try to engage him – ask him to toss a baseball with me or show me how to work a jigsaw in his basement workshop, I could feel him looking for an excuse not to, even before the words came. Each failure to engage him was like a knife in my gut. Yet I kept trying, desperate for a connection to this elusive role model whose presence and life wisdom I craved. Like Charlie Brown approaching the football Lucy holds for him to kick, I convinced myself for years with each new attempt that this time would be different. After several bruising rounds of this I’d withdraw for a time, until the longing pushed me to try again. This was our dance, and the longing that fed it became woven into my identity, my essence. Even as I grew older and was able to rationalize my father’s behavior, to understand that it would never change, I couldn’t stop longing to break through.
When we first got the diagnosis of his kidney cancer and the news that it had metastasized, I was torn between deep grief over the relationship we’d never had and never would, a guilty joy that our tortured dance would at last come to an end and free me, and a glimmer of hope that maybe there was still a chance for that to change. So when my sister said she felt too close to our Dad to handle talking to him about his condition and whether he wanted to treat or not, I saw an opportunity: I could do something for him that nobody else could. For once, the distance between us would be an advantage: I could have a neutral, thick-skinned, conversation with him. Man to man.
Alone with him in his room, I put my hand on his shoulder and leaned down beside him so that with his faltering hearing, he couldn’t miss my words:
“The doctor has the diagnosis. Do you want to know what it is?”
He shook his head, vehement, then turned to look at me. Solid eye contact. “No, Ron. I don’t.” As clear and lucid an answer as I could hope for.
I kept my hand on his shoulder, my lips by his ear, and thought about how to ask what was next. How to be direct, but not harsh. “Do you want to get treated? If the doctors can prolong your life, do you want to do that?” All my life I’d wanted to get beyond the superficial shit with him, the surface banter, the limited exchanges we had about the Red sox or the Celtics or the stupidity of whoever was currently in the Massachusetts Governor’s office. And this, I realized, was both the worst and the best moment we would get. He shook his head no. “I really don’t.”
By the following month, he’d lost most of his ability to communicate. All I could do was sit with him. He no longer had the ability or the desire to push me away. And in this space, where I could finally, fully forget my own expectations of who or what he’d be, I was at last able to say something akin to “goodbye.”
But do we ever really say goodbye to those whose memories still cause us pain? To this day, my father lives on in me. He crept into the novel I wrote, Headlong, which begins, “I came home to bury my father but he wouldn’t die.” He is still a ghostly presence in my own choice to live my emotions openly at the risk of being perceived as weak or pathetic in a society that still tends to scorn men who do so (like Dolphins lineman Jonathan Martin, who recently spoke bravely and publicly about the emotional scars of enduring a teammate’s bullying). The legacy of my father has informed my relationships with friends and, above all, with my wife and daughter, for whom I strive to be emotionally available. Always.
It isn’t easy. Being emotionally available heightens vulnerability, which can seem like a contradiction when society, friends and family still want men to be present, but “strong.” Yet I have learned that the two are neither contradictory nor mutually exclusive. Because the ability to stay present and vulnerable without locking emotions away is a tremendous strength, and though it can be painful, the relationships it helps build and the depth of living it allows — as I can stand and attest — are worth the cost.
Photo—Luis Hernandez – D2k6.es/Flickr